Unable to emigrate and not welcome at home: The Azerbaijani political refugees in limbo

Image by Sara Kurfess. Free to use under Unsplash license.

Political activist and blogger Ravil Hasanov, who has lived in Germany since 2018 with his wife, is certain his arrest is imminent in the event he is deported to Azerbaijan. In April, Hasanov asked German immigration authorities if he could switch housing options after being forced to live in unlivable accommodations, only to be told they had decided to deport him. This decision was made despite Hasanov’s attempts to explain to the German authorities that his life would be in danger if he is sent back to Azerbaijan. Despite his pleas, his application was rejected. 

When I applied to change the housing where I live now, because of bad conditions, I was told that I will be deported within several days.

On August 29, a court in Germany is going to decide whether to grant Ravil a chance for a second asylum application. His previous application was rejected in March 2021. He does not have the right to contest the decision in a court of appeals. The latter left him with only one choice — to go into hiding to avoid getting deported.

Why do Azerbaijani citizens seek out political asylum? 

Political oppression is not the only force driving people out of the country. Economic challenges, lack of opportunities, and guarantees for a better future for families with children are among some of the causes driving Azerbaijani citizens abroad in rec. However, it was the political crackdown over the last decade that has forced scores of political activists, journalists, human rights defenders and their families abroad to Europe, the United States, and Canada. 

The country’s track record on all human rights and freedoms has deteriorated over the last decade, as reflected in a number of international reports. Azerbaijan is ranked “not free” in the annual Freedom House “Freedom in the World”  country report. According to Reporters Without Border’s (RSF) 2022 World Press Freedom Index, Azerbaijan ranks 154th out of 180 countries. Another international report ranking corruption perception places Azerbaijan 128th out of 180 countries    

Through consolidated powers, President Ilham Aliyev has eradicated all forms of freedom while suppressing dissident voices since 2014

As a result of these repressive measures, the country’s civil society has been largely sidelined, silenced, or destroyed. Almost the entire media industry is now under government control. There are no independent television or radio stations within the country, and all independent and opposition print media have been closed down. In December 2021, the National Parliament of Azerbaijan adopted a new Media Law which aims to further restrict journalistic reporting.

Protests organized by the opposition political parties, activists, and ordinary citizens are not tolerated. Police intervention during these protests is often violent and mass arrests, detentions, and fines are common consequences. 

For many Azerbaijanis fleeing the country, among them regular migrants as well as political activists, Germany has become a popular destination. But not all have been welcomed or granted refugee status. The recent wave of deportations of Azerbaijani citizens from Germany attests to this. 

The latest figures by the Federal Government of Germany show that the government deported 11,892 people from Germany in 2021. Of them, 219 people were Azerbaijani citizens. A closer look at the numbers indicates that the number of deportations has been on the rise since 2017. 

Year Number of people
2014 20
2015 19
2016 69
2017 163
2018 213
2019 232
2020 62
2021 219

The decrease in 2020 is likely due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting travel restrictions. 

According to the official data provided by the Public Council of the State Migration Service of the Republic of Azerbaijan, from 2014–2021, a total of 2,063 Azerbaijani asylum seekers were readmitted from Europe to Azerbaijan, with most of them returned from Germany.

Although other EU member states — Sweden, the Netherlands, Latvia, Italy, etc. — have deported Azerbaijani citizens in the past, Germany is among the top EU countries to issue these deportations. This procedure is carried out based on the readmission agreement signed between Azerbaijan and the EU in 2014.  

Infographic, courtesy of Mikroskop Media. Used with permission.

According to Nazim Turabov, Head of the Readmission Issues Department of the State Migration Service, Azerbaijan has signed a readmission agreement with the European Union (covering 25 states), as well as the Kingdom of Norway, Swiss Confederation, and Montenegro. 

The procedure based on this agreement requires that the host country contact the country of origin, making various citizenship-related inquiries. Once the citizenship of the asylum seeker is confirmed by the home country, the agreement enters into force, and the readmission procedure begins, explained Allahveranov in an interview with Fatima Karimova. 

However, it is also possible that the inquiry will remain unanswered for an extended period of time or indefinitely because, in some cases, it is impossible to identify whether the applicant is indeed an Azerbaijani citizen, explained Allahveranov. 

The deportations have received a lot of attention back in Azerbaijan. In 2019, reports emerged of human trafficking and migration fraud with links to one of the political parties in Azerbaijan. But the more recent deportations and the arrests of those who have been sent back to Azerbaijan leave those waiting for their status in Germany and elsewhere concerned for their safety upon their return. 

Last year, at least six Azerbaijani asylum seekers who were deported from Germany were arrested upon their return. It is worth noting that due to a scarcity of government-approved data, there is very little information on year-by-year statistics on deportations. The official statistics shared by the Azerbaijani state indicate that in total, 1,722 Azerbaijani nationals were deported between 2014–2021. Families and friends say the charges leveled against arrested citizens are bogus and the real reason is their political activism in Europe.  

Exiled Azerbaijani journalist Afgan Mukhtarly who closely follows the deportations, wrote in a Facebook post on July 22, confirming that many of the former asylum seekers who have been arrested in Azerbaijan are facing bogus charges. 

Similarly, Nura Ashurova, the wife of deported and later arrested activist Samir Ashurov, said her husband’s political activism in Europe led to his arrest when he was deported back to Azerbaijan. Ashurov was deported in March 2022.

Infographic, courtesy of Mikroskop Media. Used with permission.

Political activists abroad  

It is a common practice among some Azerbaijani asylum seekers to organize protests and events in different EU member states where they reside. Often these protests coincide with President Ilham Aliyev’s official visits to those countries. The activists often make calls for the president and his cabinet to resign, release political prisoners, and implement reforms.

Other political immigrants use social media platforms to pursue their activism after relocating to a different country. YouTube channels, Facebook pages, and profiles set up by exiled Azerbaijanis are used to openly share their grievances about developments in Azerbaijan.

A screenshot from a video interview with Ravil Hasanov. Courtesy of Mikroskop Media.

Ravil Hasanov says he has attended protests in Europe and fears he could face consequences if he is sent back to Azerbaijan. 

“The people who took part in a protest in Munich during Ilham Aliyev’s visit, were arrested after their deportation back to Azerbaijan. They have also been subject to torture in detention,” Hasanov told Fatima Karimova. 

Returning home with nothing 

Even for the ordinary, apolitical Azerbaijani citizens who are deported back to Azerbaijan, the relocation back to their home country is a challenging process. Often these people leave Azerbaijan, having sold all of their property with no financial means remaining. But the government and its relevant state institutions have no system in place to help them. A small amount of aid is available for those who leave the EU state voluntarily. However, this amount is insufficient for building a new life in Azerbaijan.

Allahvernov said in his interview that the state offers them rights as a citizen and nothing more.

These people sold their property willingly based on their own decision and the funds were transferred abroad. After their return, while they are eligible to re-register in Azerbaijan and exercise all of their other legal rights as citizens they are in no position or status to receive  benefits.

Meanwhile, facing a lack of assistive resources and possible state detention upon his return, Ravil Hasanov and countless refugees and asylum seekers like him wait in limbo at the mercy of EU governments and a state that hopes to quell dissent and oppress them.

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